CLEVELAND, Ohio — One of the lingering questions heading into the season centered on the Cavaliers’ closer role.
Last year, they put the ball in the hands of LeBron James and he delivered in the clutch more times than not. Poor Toronto Raptors.
In the years prior, it was some combination of James and Kyrie Irving, one of the league’s most ruthless late-game assassins. Wherever the ball ended up, those two were the initiators.
While it’s taken more than a month, the Cavs may have their crunch-time guy. If the last two nights are any indication, it’s Jordan Clarkson.
“He has a scorer’s mentality,” head coach Larry Drew said. “Scorers, they don’t feel that they can be stopped. And that’s how they are. You put the ball in their hands and they feel they can get a shot off against anybody. They feel that they’re, what we used to call it, instant offense. That’s who Jordan is for us. When we get into those situations where we need a basket, he’s a guy that can produce for us. When we also get in situations where we’ve had, where we’ve gotten off to bad starts offensively, and we need to kind of generate some offense, I know I can put him in games because he can score in bunches. That’s who he is.”
In the last two fourth quarters, Clarkson has tallied 26 total points. He blew a kiss to a fan sitting courtside as he iced Friday’s win against Philadelphia. No gestures Saturday night against Houston. But Clarkson came through just the same, scoring 12 of his 20 points in the final quarter.
“It’s just the flow of the game. Somehow I keep getting the ball in those late-clock situations,” Clarkson said. “Just gotta make a play in those times and just trying to get a good shot. Trying to get a score and finish the game out. It’s cool that I have the confidence from my teammates to be able to give me the ball in that time and be able to convert for them.”
When Houston cut it to four with less than five minutes remaining, Clarkson canned a 17-footer. About a minute later, when the Rockets made it a two-possession game following Clint Capela’s dunk, Clarkson hit a tough fadeaway that forced head coach Mike D’Antoni to call timeout.
Part of Clarkson’s gift is an ability to make difficult shots. In a perfect scenario, the ball hops around, numerous players get involved and Cleveland’s motion offense creates a quality look. That’s the team ball the Cavs are striving for, the identity they think they have found over the last week. But sometimes a bail-out option is required, especially in the fourth quarter when the game starts to tighten.
A few nights ago, the Cavs needed a closer. Their old one was starting to rip the game away. That’s when Drew turned to Clarkson, who had a fiery start to the fourth quarter.
Clinging to five-point lead and getting decked with James haymakers, Clarkson drove down the lane before getting stripped by Lonzo Ball. One minute later, after James made it a one-possession game with a pair of free throws, Drew designed a play in the timeout for Clarkson to work around a screen for a 3-pointer. It was a decent look. But he left it short trying to hoist over the outstretched arm of JaVale McGee. Los Angeles went down the floor and tied the game.
A wild, stumbling shot in a mass of bodies on the next attempt forced Drew to pull Clarkson out of the game. He had no choice. Clarkson was sabotaging the offense. It was a chance for Drew to deliver a clear message: Shot selection in critical moments needs to be better.
“The one thing that I try and make sure that he understands, he’s going to get plays run for him and we rely on him to score but he also has to make the right play,” Drew said. “If there are situations where he’s double teamed or maybe they run a couple, three people at him, he’s got to make the right play, he’s got to make the next pass out.”
So what did Clarkson learn from his repeated failures against Los Angeles?
“I think I was trying to kind of force it a little bit, but that’s part of what we’re building towards,” he said. “I’ll take my knots on the head and keep pushing.”
Clarkson has rebounded nicely since his meltdown against Los Angeles. That’s what the Cavs need.
Nearly three weeks ago, they had a chance to win against the Orlando Magic. But costly errors at inopportune times proved too much to overcome. That night, Drew called the final play for George Hill, who drove earlier than expected, threw up an off-balance shot, had it blocked and lost possession out of bounds. Orlando got one more chance and stole a win with Evan Fournier delivering the game-winning dagger.
Two games later, Collin Sexton got his chance, missing a point-blank layup at the buzzer in Chicago.
The Cavs recognize they are probably going to be in this position plenty, where a few plays will decide outcomes. After James’ departure, Kevin Love was supposed to be the go-to guy. But his injury altered that plan and a one-time committee approach is starting to shift into a solo act.
Two straight nights Clarkson has been called on to close. He’s delivered both times.
“It’s winning time. It’s time to go get one,” Clarkson said. “It’s definitely something you work for all summer. I had a very detailed summer in terms of my work and stuff like that, and getting back to it. It’s just shows all the stuff put in is coming out now.”